Inertia on US-Latin America Relations

Jim Lobe*

Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba.  Photo: Caridad
Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 5 (IPS) – Nearly one year after his inauguration, hopes that President Barack Obama would bring fundamental changes to U.S. relations with Latin American have faded badly.

Distracted by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a major legislative battle over health care policy, and the two wars in the Greater Middle East left to him by his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has had very little time to devote to tending ties with Washington’s southern neighbors.

And it didn’t help that some of his most important appointments, notably Arturo Valenzuela as his assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Thomas Shannon as his ambassador to Brazil, among others, were held up for months by right-wing Republican senators determined to prevent Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, viewed by them as a proxy for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, from returning to power.

But, despite a promising start with Obama’s appearance and pledge to pursue “engagement based on mutual respect” at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad last April, his administration has fumbled a number of issues in ways that have contributed to what appears to be the growing disillusionment.

About Face on Honduras, Accord on Colombia Bases

Most recently, the administration abruptly reversed its demand – along with that of all of the Latin American states – that Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup d’etat last June be reinstated before the November elections.  And the U.S. failed to consult and reassure its sister nations in advance about a new, 10-year accord with Colombia that gives Washington access to seven military bases around the country.

“The administration’s about-face in Honduras over recognizing the legitimacy of the elections prior to Zelaya’s restoration appears to have had more to do with pressure from Senate Republicans over the confirmation of Valenzuela,” according to Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“The Colombia case had more to do with a profoundly inadequate process of consultation and vetting with regional allies,” she noted.

In both cases, Washington found itself isolated from most of the rest of the hemisphere, notably from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in whose embassy in Tegucigalpa Zelaya continues to be living.

Lula Frustrated with Obama

Obama has ostentatiously courted Lula – he called him “my man” and “the most popular politician on Earth” at the G20 Summit in London last April – as Washington’s most important South American partner.  However, Lula recently accused of the U.S. president of “ignoring Latin America” and failing to follow through on his Trinidad pledges.

“While Obama began the year hoping to forge a truly strategic partnership with Brazil, the mishandling of both Honduras and the bases agreement in Colombia, whose precise implications for the region remain pretty murky despite the administration’s efforts to reassure the region, have caused serious friction and damaged the bilateral relationship,” according to Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Aside from those snafus, the Obama administration has also failed to address more enduring problems in its relations with Latin America.

Little Movement Regarding Cuba

While he has made several conciliatory gestures toward Cuba, he has not gone nearly as far as many of his supporters here and in the region had anticipated in lifting the nearly universally detested trade embargo or normalizing ties with Havana.

“Although President Obama departed from the Bush policy – by restoring Cuban American travel to Cuba, granting visas to some artists, and restarting the migration talks – he has preserved much of the Cold War essence of our policy just like every president since Eisenhower,” noted Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. “And like them, he has nothing to show for it.”

“While Cuba is not very important to the U.S. strategically, it’s symbolically tremendously important to Latin America,” noted Thale. “Many people in the region expected the Obama administration, if not to end the embargo, to at least take significant steps in that direction.”

“What we’ve seen so for is very little and very limited,” he went on. “So, the message to the region is not much has changed from Bush.”

Drug War Strategy Remains “Supply Side” Oriented

Similarly unchanged is Washington’s policy on Colombia, by far the biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and the “war against drugs” that has been conducted mainly in the Andean countries, although increasingly in Mexico and Central America.

Shortly after taking office, Obama had explicitly recognized that reducing demand in the U.S. needs to be given a much higher priority, a sentiment that was echoed in a hopeful public statement by respected former presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil last February.

“Despite acknowledging the demand side of the problem, we still appear to be fighting it on the supply side,” according to William LeoGrande, a Latin America policy expert and dean of the School of Government at American University here.

“The real issue is, what’s the long-term strategy that shifts the focus from trying to stop supply to reducing demand?  Because we’ve got almost half a century now of fighting the war on the supply side, and it’s pretty clear that we’re losing it,” he added.

Meanwhile, reform of U.S. immigration laws, another longstanding irritant in U.S.-Latin relations, has been forced to give way to more urgent domestic priorities.

A long-pending Colombia free-trade accord – which some consider another key test of Washington’s commitment to the region – appears unlikely to be submitted to Congress for ratification during the coming election year.

“The Obama administration really has yet to make its mark on hemispheric relations simply because it’s been overwhelmed by other crises and priorities,” according to Arnson, who said there has been “significant continuity in practice” despite “a profound shift in diplomatic tone and style in favor of a more collaborative approach.”

LeoGrande, however, sees a greater structural problem. “The fact is, every administration comes in promising a new policy toward Latin America, and none of them, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, ever have one.  They all had to cope with much more pressing problems elsewhere in the world.”

“So Latin America policy is sort of on autopilot, because the (the top officials) don’t have time to focus on it, and the assistant secretaries don’t have the authority to make fundamental changes,” he added.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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